by Eldred Bird
I love a good mystery. I think I was the only kid in my school that had a subscription to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine—in fact, I’m pretty sure about that. Raymond Chandler, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Agatha Christie were my role models. They’re one of the major reasons I started writing, and why most of my stories lean that way no matter what genre I aim for.
I also like to share my love of the genre with others. On more than one occasion, I’ve teased Jenny Hansen, our fearless leader here at WITS, that I’m going to make a mystery writer out of her yet. This post is one more step toward that goal. Fasten your seatbelt and pay attention, Jenny, this one’s for you!
Many times, people lump mystery and thriller together. While there may be some occasional overlap, they are two distinct genres. Thrillers are generally fast paced, action focused tales where the villain or an impending disaster is exposed near the beginning of the story. The hero works against the clock to overcome obstacles and avert catastrophe by thwarting the villain’s plan or saving the world from certain destruction.
We might consider mystery to be thriller’s more intellectual brother. It generally starts with a crime (usually a murder), but the perpetrator isn’t revealed until near the end. The pacing is slower, allowing for deeper character development and descriptions, and picks up steam as the plot moves forward, but mystery is all about the details. It’s about following each clue and chaining them together to expose and defeat the true villain.
If there’s a golden rule of mystery writing, it’s no spoilers. Don’t giveaway the true perpetrator in the beginning. Let the reader discover the clues and come to their own conclusions.
What goes into a mystery can vary greatly based on the sub-genre, but there are certain elements that mystery readers usually look for. Here are the most common elements:
Most mysteries start with a crime (usually murder), but not all of them. Sometimes the first order of business is to determine if a crime has even been committed. There may be a missing person or object that needs to be tracked down. Bottom line is there needs to be a question that begs to be answered.
Once you have something to solve you need someone to solve it. Your detective could be a professional, an amateur, or even a family member. Make it a zombie if you like!
Every protagonist needs an antagonist. The closer they are to being equals, the better the story will be. A solid, relatable villain makes for a more interesting cat-and-mouse game with your MC.
The setting often sets the mood for a good mystery. A well thought out setting will function like another character in the story. It can also be both a help and a hindrance to solving the crime.
Every mystery needs a chain of clues for the hero (and the reader) to follow. Each one should build on the previous discoveries until it all adds up when the final piece falls into place. Make sure to include a few dead ends and a misdirection (like a red herring) or two. You don’t want to make it too easy!
Not every mystery includes this element, but the best ones do. Setbacks and unforeseen complications bring the emotional level to new heights. It’s especially effective if the complication plays on one of the hero’s flaws.
This is where all the pieces fall into place and the true villain is revealed, leading to their eventual capture. A word of caution here—the solution needs to make since. Don’t pull a rabbit out of the hat at the last second. Make sure the reader can trace your solution back to clues planted in the narrative. Good mysteries give the reader the same information as the detective, allowing them to experience the ah-ha moment with the hero.
We call this the denouement, from the French word for “untying.” Most mysteries will have this scene where the detective unravels the threads and explains how they arrived at their conclusions. I like to think of it as a nice way of filling in the readers who didn’t figure things out on their own.
Like any other genre, there are countless sub-genres for mystery. Here are some of the most common ones, but don’t feel limited by this list.
This is sometimes called the “bloodless crime.” The reader doesn’t witness the messy parts of the narrative. The best examples come from the “Queen of Cozy,” Agatha Christie. Sherlock Holmes also falls into this category.
This is the territory of the paid private investigator and the police detective who follows his own path, rather than the rules, to get to the bottom of things. It can be anything from noir detectives like Sam Spade and Philip Marlow, to the more modern Adrain Monk and Kay Scarpetta.
When the police fail to solve the crime or mislabel it as an accident, it’s time for the amateurs to step in and save the day. Often the hero is a family member or close friend with a personal need for answers. Sometimes it’s the nosy mystery writer looking to apply their book research to a real-world crime (Murder, She Wrote).
Okay, I know I said mysteries and thrillers are two different animals, but they do cross paths in this sub-genre. In a mystery/thriller, the protagonist isn’t just pursuing the villain, but is also being pursued themselves. It becomes a high stakes game of cat-and-mouse that comes to a head in the final conflict. The major difference here is that in a straight-up thriller, we know who the villain is. In a mystery/thriller the villain lurks in the shadows or hides in plain sight until the end.
The police procedural is just what it sounds like. The reader is invited along to watch over the detective’s shoulder as they perform their investigation, question witnesses, and build their case. Law and Order is a perfect example of a by-the-book procedural.
In a locked room mystery the focus isn’t just on who committed a crime, but how it was committed. It’s up to the sleuth to figure out how an “impossible crime” was pulled off. For a perfect example you need look no further than what is considered to be the original, The Murders in the Rue Morgue by E.A. Poe.
Mysteries come in all shapes and sizes, but they all have one thing in common. They invite the reader to not only come along on the ride but become an active participant in the solution. My best advice before you try to write mysteries is to read mysteries. A lot of mysteries! Get into the hero’s head, follow the clues, solve the crimes, then go forth and create your own.
What types of mysteries do you like? Do you have a favorite sleuth? Have you ever written a mystery? Let me know in the comments!
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Eldred Bird writes contemporary fiction, short stories, and personal essays. He has spent a great deal of time exploring the deserts, forests, and deep canyons inside his home state of Arizona. His James McCarthy adventures, Killing Karma, Catching Karma, and Cold Karma, reflect this love of the Grand Canyon State even as his character solves mysteries amidst danger. Eldred explores the boundaries of short fiction in his stories, The Waking Room, Treble in Paradise: A Tale of Sax and Violins, and The Smell of Fear.
When he’s not writing, Eldred spends time cycling, hiking, and juggling (yes, juggling…bowling balls and 21-inch knives).
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